Here's a fascinating piece in Rolling Stone about how, in the face of a music economy that is clearly in flux, many artists have been turning to licensing to pick up the slack created by declining CD sales.
And here's the bit that is sticking with me: the piece (by Fred Goodman) cites a slew of bands who have successfully positioned their music for use in commercials (with the implication that there are many more that have gone uncited). Thus we get Spoon shilling for Jaguar, Allison Krauss / Robert Plant for JC Penny, Wilco for Volkswagen, They Might Be Giants for Dunkin' Donuts, The Shins for McDonald's, and so on.
What's surprising about this is not that it happens, but that the idea of getting up in arms about it, from an ethical perspective, seems, at this historical moment, almost passé. (This is perhaps especially remarkable in the context of a genre that can be as -- forgive me -- precious as indie rock sometimes is.)
Obviously, the absence of outrage here is in direct contrast to the kind of "music for music's sake" ethic articulated by Mr. Young in the above video -- for a tune that was, as I recall, a somewhat big deal when it came out in the late eighties. At that point, there was a sense of shame about rockers who "went commercial" (and it was probably related to what I would call the "Milli Vanilli backlash" -- the hand-wringing that accompanied the suspicion that any given musical performance was not entirely "authentic").
In contrast, here's the one fleeting moment of soul-searching in the Goodman piece:
Of Montreal have appeared in a commercial for T-Mobile, composed music for Subway and licensed their tunes for Outback Steakhouse and Nasdaq ads. "When I first started Of Montreal, I probably would have been hesitant to do a commercial for Outback," says the band's songwriter, Kevin Barnes. "In the indie world, there's a holdover from the punk movement that any commercial endeavor will taint your art. But if you care about the band, you won't begrudge us a living."
Of course not. It's a good point. I can no more begrudge a songwriter who makes a quick buck selling a tune to T-Mobile than I can get annoyed at one of my own players when he or she has to take a single gig with Christina Aguilera because it pays much more than a tour with the IJG. That's the nature of the beast.
So I'm not so naive as to throw my hands up in shock at this sort of thing. I know full well the economic pressures involved in day-to-day survival for anyone making a living from music. And I know that, as long as there has been an economically-driven power structure in western society, musicians have had to negotiate with and (often) kowtow to it, in weird and sometimes humiliating ways.
But I also think it's important (artistically and psychically) to nurture the impulse to fight back against these realities. I spent ten years of my life in Los Angeles, and while there I watched talented friends make their way into the commercial music scene, which, dare I say, can impose a few pressures of its own. Those who had the wrong sensibility (even the slightest insecurity, perhaps) found the experience withering. So I'll be curious to see, ten years from now, how many of the above bands come out the other side in one piece, with a consistent handle on their own artistic vision.
I guess what I'm saying is that, when it comes down to it, I'm not exactly sure this "turn your oeuvre into jingles" thing is my favorite aspect of the emerging post-big-label music industry.
(What's that, you ask? Have I ever considering licensing IJG stuff for commercials? You bet your sweet ass I have.)